When BAE learns that an employee with deep institutional knowledge plans to retire, whether in a few months or a couple years, a knowledge transfer group of about a half-dozen people of varying ages working in the same area is formed. The teams meet regularly over months to talk and exchange advice. Younger workers elicit tips, and in some cases older ones gradually hand off tasks to junior employees. Chowing Down On Boomers’ Brains, Bloomberg Businessweek, January 25, 2016.
It was like a warning bell going off in my mind. Uh, oh, I thought, this approach by BAE doesn’t sound quite right. It struck me as too checklist oriented, too bureaucratic, and too similar to many well meaning approaches that just fail.
If we don’t have something in our team or company where we are constantly learning, either through self study, classrooms/seminars, or from our more experienced colleagues (of any age) then having this “Oh, they are going to leave, let’s start a 90 day program to get all that experience” isn’t going to save the day.
My wake up call was when I was analyzing staff hours from my project team’s efforts. It was clear that my best people, the most knowledgeable, were burning out working long hours per week at 70+ hours. My less experienced people were working more reasonable hours of 40-50. I came to realize that one of the limiting factors for the overall performance of my whole department was everyone’s access to our most experienced people. I realized that I needed to concentrate on growing how smart and experienced my teams were, rather than fretting over the access to, and the health of, my best people. More experts would naturally solve our problems.
For more on how to grow our own experts see Why We Don’t Really Need All Those Experts
My other thought as this article addressed Boomers was that over 50% of people at least in the United States will get cancer or heart disease — and the incidences increase as we age. Also some Boomers do in fact get up and change jobs — which usually means a two week notice. The unpredictability of these circumstances further reminded me that having in place a culture of spreading around knowledge was more important than a last minute, they are retiring in a few months, approach to growing everyone’s abilities.
I was in my late 20s, and I had become the expert in our system. A younger programmer came to me and ask me some questions about how the system works. I turned around and pointed at a set of manuals and said something like “the manual on that is the third over from the right — you’ll find your answers there.” He was perturbed that I would not just give him the answer, because he knew I probably knew it. But, I was more interested in helping him to continue to get better and by knowing where the answers were — where I got my knowledge — it would help him learn more than if I had just given him the answer. Ultimately, we got so many “rookie” programmers working productively on our project that we delivered it a month early, the first time in the collective memory of this military unit that any similar project had ever been delivered anything but months late.
What are you doing to ensure all your team members are growing in knowledge and experience such that when one of your most experienced members leaves it won’t suddenly be a crisis?